Alpine Crossing: Kepler Day 2

(This is the second of three posts about my recent hike of the Kepler Track in Fiordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand. You can read on if you haven’t read the first post, but if you want the whole story, click here. The final day will be covered in a future post.) 

Call me a noncomformist, call me contrary, but I didn’t want to hang around the hut the next morning like everyone else. I woke up at 6am without an alarm, ready for the day. The middle day of the Kepler Track is over alpine ridges and summits. It’s why I was doing this hike.

When I emerged from the chilly bunkroom, sneaking past the sleeping hikers still wrapped in their bags, I could see my breath. A warm bowl of oatmeal and some tea helped me defrost, but I was a bit dismayed to see none of the vast vistas of the night before. Instead, what greeted me through the common room windows in three directions was thick, white fog.

This was disappointing because the middle leg of the journey, from Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut, is known for amazing views far over the fiordlands and Lake Te Anau. And the nature of the trail itself–exposed, quite high, succeptible to slips, and marked only by snow poles–meant that if the clouds stuck around, I might not only miss the views, but have to be extra careful along the ridges.

DAY 2:

The Challenge: Mist, fog, and heights

The Reward: Mounting the summits and extraordinary vistas

Hike distance: 14.6 kilometers

Elevation: Climb from 1085 meters (3560 feet) at Luxmore Hut to the Luxmore Summit at 1472 meters (4829 feet), then down to Iris Burn Hut at 497 meters (1630 feet)

DOC anticipated time: 5-6 hours

As more people trickled in to the common room to make breakfast and repack their bags, I realized that no one was moving rapidly or intending to leave soon.

They were going to wait it out.

Perhaps I’m impatient, but I had the strong suspicion that gaining a bit more elevation would raise the trail above the top of the clouds. I hadn’t come up to the hut to hang around. If worse came to worse, I figured, I could always turn around and come back down to wait out the pea soup.

At 7:30am I put on my pack and walked out the side door. A woman from China gleefully waved goodbye to me as I walked off into the fog.

It was quite damp and chilly, and I could only see about 30 feet ahead of me. I didn’t feel nervous, though, because the trail was across tussock land and clearly marked. It also was winding along the side of Mount Luxmore and unexposed, so while the walking didn’t make for beautiful scenery, it was pretty safe underfoot.

About 20 minutes into my hike, I came around a corner in the trail.

Suddenly, within less than 90 seconds, I emerged from the fog and could see the trail and peak ahead of me. And then I turned my head to the right and I could see the very snow-covered tops of the majestic rock peaks to the west. Below them billowed thick, impenetrable white clouds. It was absolutely breathtaking.

I might have gotten a bit choked up. I might even have cried a little bit.

I felt like I had lofted above a magical land, with no other human inhabitants.

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The cloud clearing away.
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The sun.

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Along with the mountains and clouds, I could also now see the trail for much further than a few meters ahead of me–I could see it advancing up the mountain ahead of me, bravely forging ahead between icy-looking tairns and gravel-strewn slopes.

That’s where I’m going, I thought.

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The winding path ahead.
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Looking back at where I’ve been.

The climb continued and the clouds stayed below me. Several times I stopped and just savored the silence. Other than the wind ocassionally blustering past me, nothing made any noise.

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There were some dizzying drop offs.
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Mountains like islands in the clouds.

At about 8:45am I reached a small sign pointing the way to the summit of Mount Luxmore. I dropped my pack and took just my camera and hiking pole to the top. It took about 10 minutes or so to get to the summit.

On a really clear day I bet the eye can see many, many miles of land and water. That morning, however, above the clouds was perfectly clear and the peaks broke through powerfully. It was its own kind of amazing.

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Coming back down, I thought that the path would lead mostly downward, but I was mistaken! The trail led along several ridgelines in down into hanging valleys, mixed in with ascents along the way.

Just before 10am I stopped at the Forest Burn emergency shelter. The emergency stop also boasted perhaps the most scenic toilet ever.

For the next couple hours I walked along, just marveling at the scenery around me. I passed only a handful of people traversing the track in the clockwise direction.

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Clouds clearing to see Lake Te Anau!
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Happy.

For lunch I stopped to eat some peanut butter, a multigrain wrap, dried apricots, a square of Lindt chocolate, and lots of water.

The view was pretty nice, too.

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Two squaking kea, cheeky alpine parrots, approached me; however, they quickly lost interest when they realized I would not give them any food.

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A kea showing off the red under his/her wings. (That thing that looks like a fridge in the distance is actually a long drop toilet at the Hanging Valley emergency shelter.)

I put away my trash from lunch and continued down the trail, which included a series of wooden stairs.

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Very soon after lunch I reached the end of the alpine section, much to my sadness. It was now time for the descent into Iris Burn valley, which had been carved out by glaciers during the last ice age.

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Down into the valley.

Two hikers coming up from Iris Burn passed me on the hundreds of switchbacks we all had to navigate down (or up).

One Spanish young man asked me desperately how much further to the top. “I have already been hiking for these two hours… how much more is this ascent?” When I told him I had only been walking down for 12 minutes, he practically melted with relief.

Before I knew it, I was in warm beech forest. Although I felt sad leaving behind the grandeur of the mountain tops, I have always felt at home in the woods. Tiny little rifleman, the smallest species of bird in New Zealand, hopped around on tree trunks, seeking bugs. I heard kereru (wood pigeons) and saw South Hemisphere robins, which are totally different than Northern Hemisphere robins.

On the way to Iris Burn Hut for the night, I crossed many waterfalls, some large, some small. The rains from the previous day made for some noisy rippling streams.

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My happy place.

My back started hurting from the fairly intense downward trek, as well as my knees. At one point I stopped when I noticed my legs felt rubbery. For the last hour of the hike I was pretty eager to reach the hut.

Just before 2pm I got to the Iris Burn hut, way down in the valley (that’s 6 hours and 5 minutes elapsed time, for those who care. DOC had estimated 5-6 hours but that time didn’t include the Luxmore summit and another short side trip I did on the way). I put water on for tea and soup and enjoyed being the first one to arrive. After sitting quietly with both, I sauntered 20 minutes up the valley to the Iris Burn waterfall. While not the most impressive waterfall I’ve ever seen, it was still quite pretty.

The big appeal to the waterfall and its river, from what I’d heard, was that a family or two of whio, blue ducks, make their home there. I was set on seeing some of these very rare water fowl. Only about 600 mating pairs still live, and they’re endemic to New Zealand.

Alas, I did not see any on this trip to the waterfall.

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Later on I made another trip up to the falls and this time I did see two of the whio! I was thrilled; they were surfing around on the white water, which sounds strange if, like me, you’re used to ducks placidly sitting on still water. I didn’t get any clear photos, unfortunately.

I also took a freezing swim in the river. The huts in New Zealand, while cozy and protective from the elements, do not have shower facilities, and after a hard two days on the trail, I was pretty desperate for a cleansing dip.

After dinner the hut warden shared some information about the trail and local environment, and I fell into bed just before 10.

I woke up about an hour later to the unmistakable cries of a male kiwi, right near the huts.

With the cloud-top views, amazing alpine section of the trail, sucessful completion of another segment of trail, and spotting the elusive and rare whio, I fell back asleep a vastly contented tramper.

///janel///

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